Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.
Dark Water (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moved in with Ceci (Ariel Gade), her daughter, into an apartment. The two hoped to start a new life but it proved to be a challenge. Ceci began to make an imaginary friend named Natasha, the same name of a little girl who disappeared from the apartment directly above theirs. On the other hand, Dahlia not only had to deal with abandonment issues from her own mother years prior, but she also had to worry about the increasingly large leak in their bedroom ceiling. The apartment attendant (Pete Postlethwaite) and the realtor (John C. Reilly) wouldn’t take the time to genuinely help her. Over time, Dahlia became in danger of reaching an emotional and psychological breaking point. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Walter Salles, “Dark Water” was at its best when it explored the bond between a mother and her only daughter. I enjoyed the first few scenes when the mother and daughter evaluated the dilapidated apartment. Ceci insisted that she thought the place was creepy and didn’t want to live there, but it was all the mother could afford. Instead of immediately going for the cheap thrills, the material focused on the family’s sad circumstance. The first sign that there was something wrong was reflected in Ceci’s sudden change of mind after she stared at the dark spot on the ceiling. The supernatural horror was effective because it challenged the mother-daughter bond, the only strand that seemed to keep Dahlia’s mentality in a stable point. What didn’t work for me were the tired dream sequences. There were simply too many of them. In addition, it was easy to determine that we were watching a dream because the scenes had a certain glow. That lack of surprise ultimately worked against the film. The dreams were just an excuse to go overboard with special and visual effects involving water leaking out of the walls. There was nothing scary about it. While water was an important component in solving the mystery that surrounded the missing family upstairs, incorporating water with creepy details, like hair coming out of the bathroom faucet, was more engaging than a dream sequence with gallons of water that threatened to drown the character. However, I admired that the picture eventually focused on the ugliness of Dahlia and Kyle’s (Dougray Scott) divorce. More importantly, I was glad that, despite the former couple’s arguments, there was enough hint that they still cared for each other. It was another layer of reality which made the horrific elements stand out. I feel the need to give credit for Connelly’s strong performance. She made me believe that every stress her character went through was a threat to her or her daughter’s physical well-being. I knew she loved her daughter but I feared the moment when she would finally lose her grip on reality. “Dark Water” was a smart and confident horror film because it stayed away from simplifying its mature template. If only others of its type would follow.
The Craft (1996)
★★ / ★★★★
Sarah (Robin Tunney) and her family recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Sarah didn’t have many friends before and the prospect of her making many friends in her new school was low. It seemed as though everyone she encountered was either downright mean, mostly the catty girls (Christine Taylor) that scoured the hallways for their latest prey, or simply wanted to get her in bed, naturally, the hyper-masculine jocks (Skeet Ulrich). Sarah met Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True), goths who practiced witchcraft. Sarah had dabbled in witchery, too. She didn’t really get along with them at first but she hung out with them anyway because being a pariah as a group was better than being alone. Directed by Andrew Fleming, “The Craft” was an exercise in the exaggeration of high school teen angst. Half of it was fun, but the other half was self-indulgent. It was enjoyable to watch because we got a chance to see mean kids in high school get the punishment they deserved. My favorite was the blonde girl whose hair began to fall off after she called Rochelle a “Negroid” and that she hated Rochelle’s kind and their “nappy hair.” As ugly as it was to hear such dialogue, I thought it had a certain honesty. In high school, I’ve heard all sorts of mean comments that would rarely, if ever, make it on television or movies. The film’s strongest scenes took place at school despite its improbable hyperboles such as Sarah not meeting anyone who seemed genuinely nice. As we got deeper into the story, I noticed the picture slowly beginning to rely on special and visual effects to generate suspense. I don’t think it needed to. It would have been more fascinating if we saw no thunderstorms striking one of the witches or if there were no butterflies flying around them to symbolize that the god they worshipped was listening to them. Teen witches casting a spell in one scene and strange events happening the next day at school would have been enough. By not giving us much, we were left to wonder if the spells they foolishly casted were having an effect or it was simply a matter of coincidences. I thought there were also some missteps in terms of character development or editing. In one of the scenes, Rochelle started to feel bad about the spell she casted on the racist blonde. It was apparent that she wanted out of the witches’ circle (a literal self-reflection because she stood next to a mirror) but she was afraid of Nancy’s wrath. Almost immediately after the audiences were made aware of her guilt, Rochelle continued to be friends with Nancy and her character’s evolution was completely abandoned. That strand could have been a turning point. Instead of the protagonist, it would have been refreshing to see a supporting character come out of nowhere and defy certain archetypes. In the end, “The Craft” was just another teen flick from the 90s but with black nail polish witchcraft.
Shallow Ground (2004)
★ / ★★★★
When a boy, naked and covered in blood, appeared at the police station with a knife, the three officers (Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart) in charge of the small town suspected he had committed murder. But when a medic (Natalie Avital) looked at the blood sample, she discovered that the blood had come from three or four different people and the cells had been dead for about a year. “Shallow Ground,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, was a horror movie that made no sense. It didn’t know whether to be a slasher film or a supernatural thriller; it ended up a hybrid of both but the story was too weak to sustain our attention. There were hints that the events that were happening in the small town were happening in the city as well. Was there some kind of virus that plagued certain areas? Maybe the strange events were triggered by something alien like in George A. Romero’s zombie flicks. Instead of taking advantage of our curiosity and exploring that angle, there was a barrage of painfully unnecessary flashbacks involving a girl that one of the cops failed to rescue from a hooded, knife-wielding killer. One or two flashbacks would have sufficed but there were about ten. None of them served to push the story forward. The writer-director just wanted to hammer the fact that the cop was plagued by guilt and that was the reason we should root for him to survive. Furthermore, the picture relied too often on false alarms aided by its obnoxious music. Due to its formulaic use of scary music, we grew accustomed to its techniques. We knew exactly when something would pop out of the dark corner so there was no tension in the kills. The eerie whispers, rustling leaves, doors opening and shutting were simply not scary. The movie also tried to scare us with blood. It was almost amusing how much blood was used to the point where I managed to put them in groups. One type of blood was the kind that moved as if it had a mind of its own. It reminded me of the very inspired Black Oil saga from Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” When touched, it gave someone a jolt and the person was able to see another’s darkest secrets. It helped to drive people to kill “the sinner.” The second type of blood was, like the film’s pacing, stagnant. It did no harm to the person who happened to touch it. I called it “regular blood.” Both types looked incredibly fake and neither generated scares. Weren’t the filmmakers aware of the fact that blood by itself didn’t necessarily equal to a good horror movie? Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was scary because the shark ate people and then we could see blood in the water. Blood was a byproduct of something horrific, not the element that caused the terror. “Shallow Ground” failed because it tried to be too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Tom (Richard Tillman), on leave for ten days from the military, decided to look for his brother in California after Jesse (Joey Mendicino) and Nicole (Julie Mond) had been missing for a year. Marilyn (Jessie Ward) and Jared (Graham Norris), Tom’s girlfriend and high school friend, decided to lend a hand. While loading their cars with gas, Jared noticed something that used to belong to Nicole. The gas station attendant (Steve Railsback) confirmed seeing the two lovers and suggested that the three stopped looking. Written by John Shiban and directed by Shawn Papazian, “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” had a promising first thirty minutes. The first murder attempt which involved Jared being tragically stuck in a porta-potty was darkly comedic, horrific, and downright disgusting. I was also excited of the fact that we actually saw more of the killer and how he abducted a person while the partner used the restroom. I even saw a pinch of ambition as Nicole discovered that the restroom seemed to defy time and space. I was very curious in how it would resolve itself. However, the film began to lose its promise when it relied on the ghosts to generate tension. The question stopped being about which of the characters would die next and how they would meet their demise. I became more concerned of whether the character on screen was indeed alive or simply a spirit. As a result, the tension of the serial killer and the manner in which he hunted his victims was no longer there. Moreover, Mond, who did not play Nicole in the first film, was especially weak. All of her scenes needed to be reshot. When she spoke, I could sense her about to burst into laughter. I was surprised her scenes made the final cut. I wondered why she was even cast because she looked nothing like her predecessor. The filmmakers should have been more critical because Nicole was an important character in the story arc given that she provided details that would lead to the picture’s climax. What I was most interested in was Tom’s desperation and rage. His sense of loss was explored only sporadically and in the most obvious ways. I didn’t get the sense that the two were really brothers. The emotions between them were mentioned using words but not actually shown in a meaningful or moving way. “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” felt cheap not because of its images or even the way it was shot but because it strayed too far from its original concept. Instead of resolving strands like the creepy family in the Winnebago and their twisted relationship with the killer, the film pulled a maddening last-minute twist. To me, it was evidence that the writer felt like he could have done more with the script. If he was happy with what he had, he wouldn’t have felt the need to add such an unnecessary thing.
Rest Stop (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and Jesse (Joey Mendicino) decided to run away together. Jesse, an aspiring actor, invited his girlfriend to live with him in Los Angeles after he snagged a role. Nicole, who lived in Texas her entire life and depended on her parents for everything, was swayed by the romantic notion and accepted. When they finally reached California, Nicole needed to use the restroom so the couple visited an isolated rest stop. When Nicole exited the restroom, she noticed her boyfriend and their car was no longer there. Written and directed by John Shiban, “Rest Stop” was devoid of inspiration. It shamelessly adopted elements from every horror picture in which a female was stalked by a madman. However, that was not my main problem with it. I was more bothered by the fact that the material embodied an inconsistent and extremely frustrating rising action. When Nicole was terrorized, just when I thought it was over for our protagonist, the man in the baseball hat would suddenly stop. I understood that he relished her terror and it was all a game for him. But there’s a way to helm a project without making the breaks between the high-pitched screams feel stale. I would have been more invested in the story if Nicole had been smarter. Just because she was sheltered, she didn’t have to be stupid. The limitation of the writing was evident. For instance, the rest stop was surrounded by trees. I didn’t understand why Nicole, after breaking into a room with a radio, decided to drink the alcohol she found in a drawer. Maybe she thought she was safe after one person received her transmission, but a smart heroine, the kind we could root for despite her blunders, would have attempted to talk to at least three different people to ensure that the other person on the other line was not the killer. Instead, what she decided to do was disheartening: she chugged the alcohol and simply waited for help–outside where she was exposed, where she knew the killer could be watching. Furthermore, as she tried to leave the area by hiding behind the trees, every time she saw the yellow truck approaching, she was foolish enough to jump onto the main road and run from there. No wonder she couldn’t escape. It’s like playing hide and seek and you decide to change hiding places in front of the person who was looking around. But the most critical misstep involved the invocation of the supernatural. Although there are exceptions, the supernatural was unnecessary in this slasher flick because it became less believable. The horror relied on the concept of us inevitably stopping at a rest area when we go on long drives. A ghost was too much of a leap, almost a distraction, from what could been a realistic, genuinely terrifying predicament.
Case 39 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Emily Jenkins (Renée Zellweger) was a kind-hearted social worker who juggled thirty-eight cases of children who might be victims of child abuse. A co-worker (Adrian Lester) handed her case number thirty-nine, in which a child named Lilith (Jodelle Ferland) claimed that she overheard her parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley) actually planning to send her to hell while they were in the basement. There was something about Lilith that Emily couldn’t help but empathize with so she took it upon herself to take custody of the child. Unbeknownst to her, Lilith might be the devil incarnate and soon Emily’s friends (Ian McShane and Bradley Cooper) started to die in what looked like suicides. Unfortunately, Lilith didn’t come with a return policy. “Case 39” had been delayed release for quite some time and for good reasons. With far superior movies like Richard Donner and John Moore’s “The Omen” and, more recently, Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Orphan,” this film downright failed to offer something new or exciting. While there were some spine-tingling scenes such as when Lilith’s parents decided to kill their child by putting her inside an oven, they were balanced by frighteningly uninspired scenes plagued with visual effects, particularly the swarm of hornets. Zellweger did the best she could with her role despite a weak writing. I think one of the picture’s missteps was in revealing the true nature of the child too early on. Moreover, I found myself waiting for our protagonist to evolve in a meaningful way because the ingredients were certainly there. There was a dark undertone about her past relationship with her deceased mother, her inability to take care of others other than her pet fish, and the almost obsessive manner in which she attempted to tackle her work. When the hallucinations started to appear, there was a lack of tension because we knew all too well the source of her suffering. The material would have been on another level if it had successfully found a way to balance the supernatural and Emily’s every day struggle to take away children from physically and emotionally abusive homes. That way, our protagonist would have been challenged in two fronts as we attempted to discern between the fantastic and a mental breakdown. But that wasn’t the case. “Case 39” lacked dimension and depth with far too few rewards between the important revelations aided by increasingly tired booming soundtrack designed to tell us when we should be scared. Written by Ray Wright and directed by Christian Alvart, “Case 39” lacked a sense of immediacy so it lagged half of its running time. Without Zellweger’s sense of timing of when and how to react, it probably would have been unwatchable.